How the Great Jewish Revolt Erupted | History Hit

How the Great Jewish Revolt Erupted

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The historic region of Judaea has long been subjected to conflict and turmoil. As the gateway to Egypt, Arabia, Asia Minor and the lands of the Fertile Crescent, it has been the goal of many an aspiring conqueror – Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus to name but a few.

At ancient Judaea’s heart lay Jerusalem. Over the centuries waves of Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks descended upon David’s city, all determined to claim it for their own empires. But throughout its long history under siege, Jerusalem had never experienced anything quite like the Romans.

Roman Judaea

By the mid-1st century AD, war lurked in the shadows of Roman Judaea. Following the death of Herod Agrippa, the King of Judaea, in 44 AD, Judaea was doomed to two decades of corrupt and hostile procurators.

The last and worst of these was Florus. Though wholly unsuited to the job description, the friendship between Florus’ and the emperor Nero’s wives gifted the former an attractive promotion. Reprehensible though this was, cronyism was an inherent part of the Roman political structure. But this appointment proved deadly.

What started the Jewish revolt?

Florus immediately began publicising his support for the Hellenist population of Judaea and his enmity for the Jews. After a Hellenist tainted the ritual purity of a synagogue in the coastal city of Caesarea, Florus demanded eight talents from the Jewish petitioners to address their grievances. Not only did Florus spurn their protests, but he had them imprisoned.

Behind these Hellenic-Jewish tensions was emperor Nero. Having withdrawn civil rights for Judaeans and granted a tax remission for Greece, one of the richest provinces in the empire, Jews responded by refusing to pay Roman taxes. By 66 AD, Nero’s extravagant lifestyle was too much. His actions cost him dearly.

Determined to break this tax rebellion, Florus stole seventeen talents from the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a fatal miscalculation. Civil resistance erupted into revolutionary fervour in the regions beyond Jerusalem and Caesarea. Throughout the province, local militias tore down the apparatus of Roman rule. Even the great fortress of Masada was caught off-guard and overrun by the sicarii, ‘dagger men’. Only the Syrian legions under Cestius Gallus were in a position to reclaim Roman honour.

The eagle standard

Rome was on the warpath. Gallus could not let the humiliation at Masada go unpunished. Mustering the legions, led by the ‘Thunderbolt’ Twelfth Fulminata, Gallus launched a lightning campaign against the rebels. Within a few short months, the Romans had recaptured Sepphoris, Acre and Caesarea. They descended rapidly upon Jerusalem. But Gallus had become complacent following his recent success.

Underestimating the ferocity of Jewish resistance, he sent forth the ‘Thunderbolt’ legion, with the support of vexillationes – temporary task forces assembled ad hoc. But even with auxiliary detachments, the Romans lacked the necessary strength to besiege Jerusalem. Gallus had no choice but to retreat. A Zealot ambush lay in wait.

Eleazar ben Simon, the Zealot leader, had been patient. He knew even a Roman legion, mighty on the battlefield, would yield to guerrilla warfare. As the Romans retreated from Jerusalem with the same blinding speed as they had advanced, he watched as he lured the legion to its doom. Passing by the rocky pass of Beth Horon, the trap was sprung.

Surrounded and outnumbered, the Romans stood no chance. With arrows raining down upon them, 6,000 Romans reportedly fell. Though Gallus was not among the dead, his campaign had ended in disgrace. The legion’s eagle standard was in enemy hands. According to the ancient historian Josephus, the great shame of this defeat contributed to Gallus’ death a year later. This resounding defeat sent shockwaves throughout the region; more and more Judaean cities joined the rebels’ cause. The conflict had escalated into full-scale war.


Nero was determined to crush the great Judaean revolt as emphatically as Boudicca’s uprising in Britannia five years earlier. In the commander Vespasian, he had made a shrewd choice. Vespasian was an experienced commander who had spearheaded the invasion of Britain in 43 Ad. However, the pick also gave Nero the opportunity to act on his personal displeasure towards the man. Vespasian had reportedly nodded off during one of the emperor’s tiresome lyre performances.

As Nero wiled away his days in Greece, Vespasian sailed for Judaea. By April 67 AD, four legions plus auxiliaries from King Agrippa II regrouped under Vespasian’s command at Ptolemais (modern day Acre, or Akko). Koined by his son Titus and 60,000 troops, Vespasian began the campaign that would ultimately see him mould a new imperial dynasty.

Vespasian leading his forces against the Jewish revolt, a miniature in a 1470 illuminated manuscript version of the history of Josephus.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Vespasian was a typical Roman general. Unlike the impatient Gallus who had underestimated the ferocity of Jewish resistance, Vespasian’s decision-making was measured. He realised the siege of Jerusalem was the endgame, but driving every last rebel back to the city necessitated a slow, systematic campaign targeting his enemy’s disunity between the elite and Zealot poor. He focused on the Jewish elite who were not prepared to fight to the death. Towns like Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, and Sepphoris quickly surrendered. Other towns, like Jotapata, resisted.

Jotapata in the Jewish revolt

Surrounded by ravines and mountains the isolated town forced Vespasian to advance from the north. Indeed, the topographical challenges of this siege were a mere rehearsal for the colossal siege of Jerusalem yet to come. Battering rams, a siege ramp and three fifteen metre towers were erected to protect the besiegers.

Hopelessly outmatched but fuelled by patriotic and religious fervour, the defenders resorted to psychological warfare to repel the Romans. Despite Jotapata’s naturally limited water supply, the defenders wrung out their garments along the ramparts drenching the walls with water to convince the Romans of their resilience. But these mind games could hardly divert Roman wrath. Indeed, Vespasian’s injury from a defender’s dart only invigorated Roman determination.

After enduring 47 days of siege the defenders were exhausted and weak from lack of supplies. The siege ramp was completed but Vespasian opted for the stealthy approach. Supposedly Titus himself, along with a small group of Roman soldiers scrambled over the walls, took down the guards and the opened the gates to the legions. But take this version of events with a pinch of salt. Josephus, our source, was in fact the commander of military resistance in Galilee, and in his later text he was determined to justify his own treachery during the revolt.

Josephus tells us that the last forty defenders planned to commit mass suicide. One by one they drew lots and stabbed one another until only two were left. Josephus was one of them. But neither could complete the deed themselves. Instead they opted for languishing in a Roman gaol and lamenting their ignominious surrender.

The city of civil war

By early 68 AD all Jewish strongholds in the north had been eliminated. Vespasian, wintering at Caesarea Maritima, prepared for the summer campaigning in Idumea and Perea. Meanwhile the defeated rebels from Galilee, led by John of Gischala, retreated to the Temple.

Jerusalem was now a hotbed for extremists. Anyone suspected of surrendering was killed as the Zealots pillaged the population. Appalled by the Zealot atrocities, Ananus ben Ananus, a former high-priest and a prominent leader of the Judaean Free Government, conspired against them. Seizing the outer court of the Temple, Ananus turned the Holy City into a battleground. Ananus was determined to crush the Zealots and even appealed to Vespasian to besiege the city. Or so John claimed.

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Ananus had made no such request of Vespasian. But the damage was done. Fearful of the onslaught of the legions, the Zealot messengers convinced the Edomites to the south to come to their aid. Against the 20,000 strong Edomites and the Temple stronghold, the uprising didn’t stand a chance. Massacre ensued with Ananus among the fallen. Jerusalem belonged to John and the Zealots.

Year of the Four Emperors

Jerusalem was in turmoil. But far to the west Rome was being rocked by a civil war of its own. Nero’s long list of crimes had finally caught up with him. In the spring of 68 ADE Vindex, the legate of Gallia Lugdunensis rose up in rebellion against Nero’s crippling taxes. He called on his counterpart Galba, in Hispania Tarraconensis, to take the throne. Vindex’s uprising was crushed by the Rhine legions. Denounced as a public enemy by the Senate, Galba, meanwhile, knew there was no turning back.

Nero’s comeuppance had long been overdue; our sources, at least, decried his tyranny and debauchery. Betrayed by his praetorian prefect Nymphidius, who backed Galba, Nero who was declared an enemy of the people. Fleeing Rome with just a handful of faithful freedmen he is supposed to have ended his life, mourning: “What an artist is about to perish!”

Far to the east, news of Nero’s death and the tumultuous succession reached Vespasian later that year. In July 69 AD, Vespasian decided to proclaim himself emperor, too, in Alexandria. He left his son Titus to finish off the revolt in Judaea.

Tristan Hughes